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Copper access will continue to dominate in Europe

At least that's the prognosis of analysts Point Topic in its latest report, VDSL in Europe's future. "Despite all the campaigning for fibre all the way to the home (FTTH), economics and technology will ensure that, for most people, the fibre will stop some way short of their doorstep," says the Point Topic press release in a thinly-veiled side-swipe at Europe's many FTTH enthusiasts many of whom advocate government promotion of fibre over copper.

Still, the copper numbers won't come as a surprise to Europe's fibre-lighters who have already factored in extra DSL longevity as a result of Europe's deep recession (and a subsequent lowering of telco capital expenditure) and some new technology - vectoring - that can enable Europe to hit the magic 30Mbit/s number without digging fibre all the way to the home.

According to Point Topic at least 90 per cent of homes in the European Union will hit the target by 2020 (if the householders choose) which means that one major objective of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda for providing superfast broadband will be largely achieved, it says.

The VDSL or FTTC (fibre-to-the-cabinet) option relies on getting fibre to the street cabinet but then using existing twisted pair telephone cable to make the final drop. Because the runs are short speeds of between 25 and 40 Mbit/s can be achieved - vectoring can double those speeds again.

That puts VDSL as the fastest-growing of the super-fast technologies - coverage has increased by 5.6 per cent across Europe, reaching 24.9 per cent by the end of 2012.

The coverage of Docsis 3, the superfast broadband technology used by the cable TV networks, grew by 2.7 per cent, although it is still ahead of VDSL for now with 39.3 per cent coverage of homes. FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises, which includes both FTTH and “fibre-to-the-building”, for example to an apartment block) grew by 2.4 per cent and now covers 12.3 per cent of the EU.

Point Topic says the reason VDSL outstripped both Docsis 3 and FTTP is mainly economic.

"Docsis 3 spread very rapidly in the period 2010 to 2012 because it required just a simple upgrade to existing cable TV networks. But that process is almost complete now and further growth will require building new cable networks which is hard to justify financially.

"Similarly, extending the coverage of FTTP will also mean building new networks. Much of the FTTP coverage in Europe to date serves areas of high-density housing, such as apartment blocks in the eastern EU. FTTP can be the cheapest solution in these circumstances, particularly if there is no telephone network. But the most attractive areas are largely covered now, so FTTP growth is also slow."

Point Topic says all three technologies will continue growing in coverage, but VDSL will grow much faster: “We forecast that VDSL will reach 73 per cent of European homes by 2020, while Docsis 3 cable will cover 45 per cent and FTTP only 16per cent,” says Tim Johnson, lead author of the report.

Even so, Point Topic forecasts that only 90 per cent of European homes will have access to superfast fixed-line broadband by 2020, falling short of the Digital Agenda objective of 100 per cent. As a result it expects that FTTP may be called upon to fill the gap - FTTP coverage could therefore end up being 21 per cent or more, it concludes.

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